Shaping in psychology relates to the way in which a person is operantly conditioned to respond. To be shaped a person engages in a behavior repeatedly. In society, social mores tend to shape a person through positive reinforcement when a person complies with social mores and punishment from the group when a person deviates from the social norm.
Many psychologists and sociologists look at shaping and whether nature or nurture shapes a child. Some believe that heredity plays an important role in shaping an individual. Others believe that the nurturing or lack of nurturing a person receives shapes the outcome of his or her personality and social adjustment level. However, if one looks closely at the way people interact in society, both sides are a testament to the way in which a human is shaped.
Many people are familiar with Pavlov's Dogs. Pavlov hypothesized that if he rang a bell each time he provided food to the dogs, that the dogs would become conditioned or shaped to respond to the bell. His theory proved sustainable by the fact that every time the bell rang, the dogs began to salivate in anticipation of food. He shaped the dog's response through operant conditioning.
People's personality is also shaped in the environment by the responses they receive from their actions. An infant smiles for the first time, and the mother smiles back at the child or makes cooing sounds. The child likes the mother's response and smiles again. The reinforcement provided by the mother and leads the child to engage in more frequent smiling.
In countries like Russia where the cribs of orphanages are overfilled with infants, the workers barely have time to change the children's diapers and feed them. The children do not receive the level of affection and stimulation they need. Many of the children do not respond to a person walking by because the children know that they will not be picked up. The child has been shaped not to respond to a worker. A child that is frequently held and socialized with would automatically reach or call out for the adult.
Shaping relies on reinforcement or punishment. Punishment is not a method that promotes positive behavior and when harsher punishments such as spanking or hitting a child are used, the child is more likely to learn to hit. In addition, the child becomes conditioned to fear the person spanking him or her. Positive reinforcement, when a child engages in a good behavior, is much more likely to result in a positive outcome. However, one must identify the reinforcer that the person desires. One child may desire candy but another may prefer one-on-one attention with an adult.
Shaping occurs among groups in society as well. Gang members are shaped into the group by reinforcement. Praise for accomplishing a task, the camaraderie of the group, or the protection a person feels the group provides all serve as reinforcers in a gang.